by Rowan Emslie
There is a certain, unfortunate breed of mouse that is incredibly prone to addiction. It will forsake water for alcohol, it won’t contain itself around drugs, it will abandon almost all other activities to run around and get high all day. This type of mouse is coveted by scientists who wish to study the effects of addiction – how the brain and behaviour are altered, or how to improve the ‘cold turkey’ period. Destructive personality traits are not the preserve of humans alone.
Animal research generates a lot of ire. Facilities have been targeted by arsonists and bomb makers and researchers have been sent death threats and suffered violent, personal attacks. People all over the world are passionate about animal rights; this passion sometimes spills over into aggression and violence. Understandably, many researchers are reluctant to publicly highlight their work and facilities are often shrouded in secrecy as well as huge security measures.
I was only dimly aware of the animal research that happens at the University of Bath. I had heard vague assertions from friends which were never followed up with any hard facts. How did they know about these things? Were they involved? What was being tested? This year, my position at bathimpact, with a lot of help from the University and faculty, has granted access to some of these facilities to gather some real information.
WHAT I SAW, WHAT I LEARNED
The facility itself is licensed by the Home Office, as are the ‘Project Leaders’ who are responsible for particular studies and, below these, ‘Personal Licences’ which are required for any contributors to those studies. If, at any time, anybody is found to have contravened the enormous amount of regulations surrounding animal research – mistreatment of animals in any way, going beyond the remit of your particular license – the offender could be black-listed for life, depending on the severity of the misdemeanour. Not only is animal welfare vital for good science, I am told, it is very much in the interest of the careers of the professionals who work there.
The vast majority of the testing at this facility is considered ‘mild’
– the lowest Home Office rating for animal suffering. Some minor
surgery is performed, under anaesthesia and pain killers. In other studies the animals are also treated with addictive drugs. Many of the experiments focus on behavioural changes under drug treatment – issues like addiction or depression are examined, including the testing of the controversial group of drugs known as SSRIs, of which Prozac is the most familiar. These are drugs that are prescribed to and used by humans in Britain and most of the world.
Of course, there are deaths. There are several thousand mice and rats in the facility, all of which are fed and watered in enclosures that are cleaned at least once a week by a dedicated staff. Rodents do not have a huge life expectancy and some develop medical issues. These are humanely put down with either a simple neck-breaking procedure or an overdose of CO2. The bodies are donated to a local reptile facility.
Often, it is growth patterns that interest the researchers – such studies are often useful for cancer research. They add a gene from a jellyfish which glows bright green under ultra-violet light, to certain parts of the body such as the brain or other organs. This allows researchers to better see what has or has not changed. Looking at some mice, glowing in the dark, they didn’t seem to me to be bothered by this addition to their bodies. Scientists do not think this harms them in any way, but it does raise the spectre of another side of the animal research debate: is it ethical to change the biological make-up of a living animal or is that playing God?
To follow up on this question I spoke to Dr Robert Kelsh whose work at the University focuses on the Zebra fish. He is a Professor of Stem Cell and Developmental Genetics, his work focuses on the neural crest which develops in embryos and helps to generate various elements of the body – the jaw, the nerves in the skin, parts of the bowel and pigmentation. After speaking to him, he took me to see the fish he studies. More specifically, he showed me the embryos – all their research is done in the first five days of embryonic development – because these embryos are incredibly visible. They are, in fact, see-through. You can quite literally watch skin pigment develop, cell by cell.
The work done in the fish facility is less intrusive than the work done with rodents. What they work with they can only see with microscopes. The embryos he showed me were alive and well, not even anaesthetised. But these are embryos, and the researchers are interested in stem cells: both of those things are controversial. Rightly or wrongly, such work might upset people, not because of the actual harm done to the animals in question (it should be noted that these fish are better looked after than most pet shop fish) but because of the powerful nature of genetic tampering. Should anybody, regardless of intent or effect, be altering something as basic as the genetic structure of an animal?
“I do not think that the changes we make in the course of our research are any more substantial than those made routinely by, for example, selective breeding. …[E]xperience tells us that the frequent outcome of our meddling in eco-systems is disruption of that eco-system, sometimes disastrously. But this is a new field, and one where active anticipation of these and other problems is being encouraged, and guidelines being drawn up to protect against this.”
Dr Kelsh and his team have the ability to keep up to thirty thousand fish – they are studied partly because of how small, easy to keep and easy to breed they are – but actually keep more like ten to fifteen thousand. “We don’t like to keep more fish than we need,” I am told. The adult fish are kept for breeding purposes only. As they age, they become less useful for breeding and so are euthanized with an overdose of anaesthetic. Other than this, no procedure is done on them after the first five days of their existence.
Much of the research is exciting, none more so, I think, than the study of pigment cells from Zebrafish to find drugs that inhibit the protein ALK, linked with cancer development. They noticed that screening embryos for drugs that decreased production of a certain type of pigment cell - iridophores, the ones that make fish scales shiny - highlights which drugs would stop ALK expressing cancer cells from developing into dangerous tumours. This is a cheap and easy idea for screening for treatments for several very dangerous cancers. It’s the sort of thing people tend not to get upset about.
It is conspicuous that animal rights groups and their associated literature mostly shies away from mentioning medical research done on animals. PETA list the following: “stopping the use of animals in cosmetics laboratories, agricultural research, dog and cat food trials, weapons tests, aerospace studies, and car-crash simulations”. As I prepared to write this article, I was ready to convince the relevant campus authorities to give me access not only to dispel myths but also to expose some of the fascinating medical work being done. What actually happened was I was met by some very proud professionals who were very keen to let the wider public know what they were working on. Despite this, I was told by some other experienced members of student media that as recently as five years ago, this article would have been a no go.
I asked some of the researchers what made them want to talk to bathimpact. Dr Sarah Bailey, Department of Pharmacy Pharmacology, had this to say “My personal view on why we should be open? The public fund a lot of medical research, through research councils and medical charities, much of which involves using animals. The vast majority of the public support animal research for medical purposes; this support depends to some extent on how we keep people informed about what we do. If scientists are not open then we may be viewed as having something to hide - and we don’t- the UK has the strictest legislation regulating animal research which places animal welfare at the centre of everything we do. That is important for all researchers. The University has recently signed up to the concordat on openness on animal research along with more than 40 other organizations.”
“We have always been open about our work, through the website and publications. We’re very confident that we work within very stringent guidelines - the UK legislation is more so than those of any other country I have worked in or discussed with colleagues. And our fish are more healthy than, for example, many you can freely buy in pet shops!”
There will always be people who regard any animal research as ethically wrong, just as there are people who regard eating meat as ethically wrong. For me, the whole issue is more complicated than any blanket judgement of right or wrong. The regulations seemed to be incredibly strict, the actual conditions of the animals were, as far as I could see, near impeccable and all the individuals involved had considered, long and hard, what they did and how they did it. To ignore these extra factors seems like wilful ignorance.
Hopefully, this article has shed some light about what actually happens with animal research on campus and dispelled some myths. Fear not for your pets, these researchers are dedicated scientists just like, no doubt, many of you wish to be.
With thanks to Will Marsh and Vicky Just as well as the researchers involved. If you would like to comment about animal research on campus please email email@example.com